On record: CBSO / Edward Gardner – Schubert: Symphonies Vol.1 – nos. 3, 5 & 8 (Chandos)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Schubert
Symphony no.3 in D major D200 (1815)
Symphony no.5 in B flat major D485 (1816)
Symphony no.8 in B minor D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Chandos CHSA5234 [74’11”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper
Recorded 9-10 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

What’s the story?

Having already tackled the Mendelssohn symphonies (and with a further instalment featuring the overtures imminent), Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony now turn to those by Schubert in what promises to be a notable addition to the orchestra’s discography

What’s the music like?

Even with advances made (primarily through the work of Brian Newbould) in recent decades, Schubert’s cycle still tends to fall into two categories – the half-dozen mainly of his teenage years, with overt influences from Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven, then the Unfinished and Great symphonies, in which the composer forges a decisive new path at the outset of the Romantic era. Whether this survey also takes in any of those fragmentary pieces that came in-between, or the drafted ‘Tenth Symphony’ from Schubert’s final weeks, remains to be seen.

This release commences with the Third Symphony, most succinct of the earlier works in its thematic economy and formal concision. Gardner catches well the anticipatory nature of the slow introduction, then steers a secure course through the main Allegro’s alternation of pert woodwind melody with lithe tuttis. More intermezzo than scherzo, the Allegretto is as deftly characterized as the ensuing Menuetto is bracingly despatched. Gardner also minimises that sense of the final Presto as unfolding in ever-decreasing circles prior to its effervescent coda.

The Fifth Symphony is the highpoint of those from Schubert’s formative years – not least in the Mozartian poise of its opening Allegro, with the CBSO woodwind at their most felicitous. Gardner’s relatively swift tempo for the Andante might lessen its inherent charm but enables him to emphasize the searching modulations into its more restive episodes – after which, the Menuetto is more explicit in its G minor incisiveness. Nor is there any lack of impetus as the final Allegro pursues a witty while also suave course through to its almost peremptory close.

From here to the intensely introspective start of the Eighth Symphony (the ‘Unfinished’) is to enter a whole new expressive epoch. The CBSO strings are at their sonorous best in the initial Allegro, here with due emphasis on its ‘moderato’ marking and accruing considerable intensity in its anguished development then fatalistic coda. The Andante complements it in almost every respect, with Gardner ensuring that the hymnal eloquence and anxious musing of its contrasting sections achieve formal and expressive parity ultimately set in relief by the coda’s radiant benediction.

Does it all work?

Yes – thanks not least to some unerringly alert and sensitive playing, together with SACD sound whose clarity and overall perspective admirably reflects that of the refurbished Town Hall acoustic. Interpretively, Gardner occupies a fruitful middle-ground between the tensile rhetoric of Jonathan Nott (Tudor) and agile incisiveness of Thomas Dausgaard (BIS), hitherto the most consistent among recent Schubert traversals and ‘authentic’ through their conveying of this music’s essence without falling prey to merely fatuous notions of stylistic authenticity.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. An additional enhancement is the insights of Bayan Northcott, whose booklet notes will hopefully grace future instalments in a series whose second volume is keenly awaited. Perhaps Gardner and the CBSO might also consider the Berwald symphonies at some point?

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Chandos website

Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

The Favourite Soundtrack – listen here

Happy New Year!

One of the most hotly anticipated film releases of this New Year 2019 is The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as part of a starry cast to tell a tragi-comic tale around the life of the 18th century English monarch.

The score of this colourful, moving and often hilarious film is full to the brim with classical music – so as the release of the official soundtrack is a few weeks away, here is a playlist of the musical numbers. From Purcell‘s incredibly moving Music For A While to Messiaen‘s thundering Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) by way of small-scale Schubert and Schumann, it contains some absolute gems!

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica

Gidon Kremer (violin), Georgijs Osokina (piano), Kremerata Baltica (above)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Bach-Busoni (arr. Kremer) Chaconne in D minor BWV1004/5 (c1720)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings in A minor op.42 (1948)
‘Schubert meets Silvestrov’:
Schubert Five Minuets and Six Trios D89 (1813) and Der Musensohn D764 (1822) interspersed with
Silvestrov Five Pieces for violin and piano (2004)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having launched the Weinberg Weekend with his impressive transcription of the 24 Preludes for cello, Gidon Kremer this morning bought Kremerata Baltica to Birmingham’s Town Hall for a programme that placed Weinberg within a typically stimulating and unexpected context.

Few who have heard Weinberg’s opera The Passenger could have been left unmoved by that climactic moment when the opening of Bach‘s Chaconne is intoned by unison violins as the symbol of an enduring German culture. Disappointing, then, that Kremer’s own arrangement of Busoni’s mighty piano transcription (as referenced at the opening) should have proved so underwhelming; or was it more the demands of synchronization when not conducted that led Kremerata Baltica to neuter textural and emotional contrasts in this immaculate yet unresponsive rendering.

Kremer then joined his ensemble for Weinberg’s Violin Concertino, a product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but proscribed. While there is little in its melodic content of real memorability, the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music) then an incisive final Allegro is nothing if not resourceful. Even then, this attractive piece waited almost half a century for its first hearing.

Kremer and his ensemble made the most of these attractions, as they did in the final piece – a curious though effective dovetailing of miniatures from Schubert and Silvestrov. The former was heard in transcriptions (by Kremer?) of an early sequence of minuets and trios for string quartet, his teenage gaucheness outweighed by melodic poise and rhythmic brio. In between these, Valentin Silvestrov’s Five Pieces proved suitably elusive – Kremer and pianist Georgijs Osokina teasing myriad subtleties from a subdued elegy, wistful serenade, poetic intermezzo, limpid barcarolle and haunting nocturne. The sequence was rounded off with an arrangement (by Christoph Ehrenfellner) of Schubert’s song Der Musensohn, one of a handful of Goethe settings that mark the onset of his full maturity; here working its bewitching charms in full.

A bewitching way, indeed, to conclude a typically provocative programme by this always enterprising ensemble. Kremer’s and Kremerata Baltica will also be taking part in tonight’s concert which features a very different piece by Weinberg, his valedictory 21st Symphony.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Wigmore Mondays: Chiaroscuro Quartet play Haydn & Schubert

Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola), Claire Thirion (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in E flat major Op.33/2 ‘Joke’ (1781) (1:43
Schubert String Quartet in A minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) (21:32-54:10)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 1 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This concert was due to be headed by clarinetist Annelien Van Hauwe, but sadly due to personal circumstances she was not able to join the Chiaruoscuro Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Instead the quartet provided an autumnal work from their repertoire, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor. This is known as the Rosamunde, for its slow movement contains a tune from the incidental music Schubert wrote to the play.

First, however, we had one of Haydn’s great early quartets. The composer already had two substantial sets of six quartets under his belt, published as Op.17 and Op.20 (the Sun quartets), and continued his expansion of the string quartet as the primary form of chamber music with six more, published as Op.33 in 1781. The second of these was subtitled The Joke, with a punchline making itself clear in the last movement.

Before that came an enjoyable first movement Allegro moderato (from 1:43 on the broadcast). This was a little bit sinewy in the sound initially, but it was played with a nice air and a hint of the humour that was to flourish later on. The perky second movement (7:02) found a slightly more detached approach from Ibragimova, but was given a sprightly step. By contrast the slow movement (10:21) felt very down at hand initially, with lean bow strokes from the players, with quite a savage intervention halfway through.

Perhaps this was to emphasise the humour of the skittish finale, beginning at 15:27. The tune is a fun one and was played as such, especially when the false endings began at 18:25 – after which point the audience enjoyed second guessing when the piece would actually finish. Haydn – even now – would have been smiling.

The Schubert (beginning at 21:32) enjoyed moments of great beauty in a performance stressing the softer nature of his quartet writing. With a very quiet start, the first movement developed into an engaging and often imposing argument as the main theme was modified and passed around – before returning, still in sombre mood, at 29:50.

The Rosamunde movement, starting at 34:01, was quite plaintive to start with but like the first movement grew in stature, its lyricism also more evident. The Scherzo was much darker, its shadowy outlines from 40:54 lightly sketched by the cello. The fragility of this music found shafts of light from its accompanying Trio section, with just a couple of squeaks in the upper register from the violin, before the scherzo material itself returned at 45:20.

The finale had a forthright, martial character (from 47:29) and found the firm resolution that the other movements had noticeably held back on – completing a thought provoking and carefully thought out performance from a very fine quartet.

Further listening

The music heard in this concert, including the Chiaroscuro’s recording of the Schubert, can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

The Chiaroscuro have recorded Haydn’s set of six quartets Op.20, which appear in the two album links below, showing off the early innovations made by the composer in the form. Entertaining, too!

For more information on the Chiaroscuro Quartet, head to their website